Christian TraditionsSeekingTheology & Spirituality

Of Tribalism and Churches (Part I)

Recently I have been thinking about the topic of tribalism. By tribalism I mean adapting one’s behavior and thinking to accord with the group of people with which we are associated. I have been thinking a lot about this issue not because I am thinking about becoming a St. Louis Cardinals fan (my fellow Cubs fans will be happy to hear). Rather I have been thinking about tribalism in the context of baptism and the church to which I belong.

In the first part of this two-part article, I will outline some of the context surrounding my reflections on tribalism and factors influencing my thinking about baptism. In Part Two, I will write on where this doctrinal thinking meets reality in my particular context.

Tribalism and Context

Permit me to provide some context. As some of you may know, during the past several years my wife (Hayley) and I have been trying to figure out where we best fit in the people of God. The long and short of the journey to this point has been, that we are unclear at this point to which church denomination we belong. Theologically we have a number of affinities, with the Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox communions, or at least the portions of those denomination which we have researched and visited. However at this point we are unable to determine which of those communities we fit into for a number reasons. Foremost has been our inability to find a church that balances our general, theological, and practical considerations.

Another issue with our search has been the fact that for the past year we have been worshiping at The Rock Church of Saint Louis. The Rock is Southern Baptist Convention by affiliation, but is rather unique. There are a number of features that have drawn us to this community, but among the most important are weekly communion, community groups, and strong biblical teaching. The most important aspect of our attendance at The Rock involves our understanding that God has, for whatever purpose, called us to attend this particular church. Although we remain unsure about where we fit within the global church long term, we rejoice that we have found ourselves connected and serving with a local church community here in St. Louis.

Thus the issue of tribalism. For if we belong to a particular church community and we believe strongly that God has called us to live, love, and serve in that community, the question arises as to why we would not fully embrace participation in that community. That is, if God has called us to belong to that particular place why would we not fully embrace that calling? The concern here involves baptism. Having been born and raised in a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod family I was baptized as an infant. As those of you familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention are aware, in order to be a full member of the SBC one must be baptized by immersion as a believer.

From the Baptist perspective, of course, I have not been baptized. However, given my own experiences and my understanding of the historic Christian sacrament of baptism, I cannot accept that view. Experientially, when I look at my life and God’s work of transformation in me, my process of my salvation began with my baptism. Although there have been many times and places in my life when I have failed to walk according to God’s precepts and love, there has been no time in my life in which I cannot remember following Jesus. My faith was planted at my baptism, watered by the word of God, and will (Lord willing) continue to grow throughout the rest of my life. Thus the impasse of thinking about my current Baptist tribe and (re)baptism, since I believe that my infant baptism remains valid.

Baptismal Thinking

Several other factors contribute to how I think about tribalism and baptism. First, Jesus commands his disciples to baptize as an integral part of their mission on earth. Accordingly baptism stands as a central part of what it means to be a Christian, a sacramental and outward profession of faith. Second, I believe that the principle of ex opera operato stands as an important and valid way of thinking about the efficacy of baptism. That is, baptism is not about the person performing the baptism, which remains valid even if the officiant stands outside the normally acceptable realm of Christianity.

An important corollary to this doctrine involves the fact that baptism itself does not depend solely on the person receiving the sacrament. If baptism is efficacious because of the one behind the physical act (i.e., the Father) rather than the one performing the physical act (i.e., a pastor/priest), then it seems that baptism remains efficacious even if those receiving it do not understand the sacrament. Full understanding of baptism is not necessary for the sacrament to seal Christians. For example, I have significant problems with a particular friend of mine who was baptized publicly by immersion one year and then the next year requested to be re-baptized in like manner because she then had a better understanding of her faith. This type of thinking relies too heavily on our understanding of Christian doctrine and not enough on how God works through baptism. Baptism affects human beings because of the grace of God, not because of the purity of the one baptizing or the understanding of the one being baptized.

The final component that informs my thinking on baptism is what the Church has to say on the issue. There are obviously some historical and interpretive issues in taking evidence from the early church and applying it today. At the very least, however, I believe that the early church offers a pattern for approaching Christian faith today. On the issues of baptism and re-baptism, the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions provides some insights, especially on the unacceptability of re-baptism. While not directly addressing my current wrestling with tribalism and how appropriate it may or may not be to do something because of my engagement in a particular faith community, the Apostolic Constitutions do offer some insight into how some early Christians perceived the phenomenon of re-baptism. Re-baptizing someone is simply not acceptable, since Saint Paul makes clear that true Christianity is that which holds to “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” At this juncture, then, arguments concerning re-baptism are not persuasive.

In Part II, I will turn more explicitly to the application of this thinking about baptism to my concrete situation. What are your thoughts on baptism? What are the requirements for when you may be properly baptized or who may baptize you?


Image courtesy of Daniel Horacio Agostini.

Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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